Internet Atrocity! GeoCities' Demise Erases Web History

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The GeoCities home page in 1998

When Yahoo! switched off the servers for GeoCities, the Web posting service, on Oct. 27, some 7 million of the Internet's first websites went dark forever. The bulk of these were people's personal home pages, which were pulled offline with no backup and no permanent record of those users' frenetic early forays online.

Now a ragtag effort by several groups of budding computer historians is feverishly — and angrily — trying to bring as much as they can back online. Founded in 1995 and bought by Yahoo! four years later, GeoCities had become a relic, and not a particularly pretty one at that. The site was one of the first to offer home pages to the masses, letting users reserve a plot in a digital city — entertainment sites lived in Hollywood, for example — and then build, well, whatever they wanted. This was the early days of Web design, and some of the pages nearly induced epileptic fits with animated images, blinking text and clashing color schemes.

But some still saw beauty in the chaos. "GeoCities was the largest self-created folk-art collection in the history of the world," says Jason Scott, 39, leader of ArchiveTeam, one of a handful of parallel groups that worked to download as many of the GeoCities home pages as they could in the weeks before Yahoo! pulled the plug. An ex–system administrator, Scott is trying to get funding to be a full-time Internet preservationist. He says GeoCities is his most public battle yet. The week it went dark, the GeoCities network still ranked in the top 200 most-trafficked sites, according to Alexa, a Web-data company.

Despite the traffic, Yahoo! announced in April that it planned to shutter the service, immediately sealing it off to new registrations. Scott says he tried to get answers from the company, but no one ever replied. (Yahoo! did not respond to TIME's request for comment on GeoCities.) When it became clear the service was about to be shut down, he mobilized a team of about 30 people operating nearly 100 computers, working against the clock for nearly six months to download as many of the GeoCities pages as they could find.

ArchiveTeam is still sorting through the data, but Scott estimates that he was able to save more than a million accounts, which translates to more than 2 terabytes of data (about 20 average computer hard drives). And he wasn't alone — Scott says that four or five others were working to save GeoCities. One of these people, Jacques Mattheij, managed to get nearly 2 million accounts, operating just eight machines out of the Netherlands. Recovery efforts are continuing, as Yahoo! hasn't shut off some of the servers of customers who paid for GeoCities hosting after Yahoo! bought the company.

Scott likens Yahoo!'s actions to a textile producer polluting a river in the days before environmentalists were there to cry foul. Mattheij draws an analogy to the Taliban's destruction of the ancient Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001. But past the hyperbolic rhetoric, they say they just want people to pay attention to what they see as a trend of companies not thinking long-term about preserving online efforts. "When corporations take custody of your data, they not only have a responsibility to you, they also have one to humanity as a whole," Mattheij wrote to TIME. "Right now we are producing content at an astounding rate ... in the long run, the question of what to keep and what to discard should not be made in corporate boardrooms."

Scott and Mattheij are sharing data between their groups, working to remove duplicates and come up with a firm number of how many accounts they were able to save. Scott says he hopes to eventually be able to distribute a free file that contains the entirety of GeoCities, so anyone can have a personal copy of one of the Web's baby steps. But even if he's successful, don't expect Scott's rage toward Yahoo! to lessen.

"These guys found the way to destroy the most massive amount of history in the shortest amount of time with absolutely no recourse," Scott says. His hope is that groups like his can stop others from doing the same.